In 2011, the United States Bankruptcy Court, Central District of California released their report on Access to Justice in Crisis: Self-Represented Parties and the Court. The report found that approximately 28 percent of bankruptcy filings in the Central District are filed without an attorney, compared to about nine percent nationwide. In 2011 alone, the number of self-represented bankruptcy debtors in the Central District of California numbered 38,098; and if self-represented creditors in bankruptcy actions are included, the number of self-represented litigants in Central District Bankruptcy courts in 2011 exceeded 40,000.
Does it matter if a litigant has an attorney? Most attorneys know that answer is yes. The Central District’s report shows how much of a difference attorneys make in bankruptcy cases. The goal of a chapter 7 bankruptcy is a discharge of debts. In the Central District of California, self represented debtors in Chapter 7 cases obtain a discharge of debt approximately 61 percent of the time whereas attorney-represented debtors in Chapter 7 cases obtain a discharge of debt 95 percent of the time. In Chapter 13 bankruptcy, the goal is to create, and stick to, a plan to pay arrearages over many months to make up for missed payments. Approximately 55 percent of attorney-represented debtors reach confirmation of a plan, whereas only 0.4 percent of self-represented debtors do – showing that it is nearly impossible for self-represented debtors to succeed in Chapter 13 bankruptcy.
To help level the playing field for bankruptcy litigants, a free Bankruptcy Self-Help Clinic was started in 2009 in Lompoc and moved to the Northern Division Bankruptcy Court on State and Cota Streets in 2010. Every Friday morning, pro bono attorneys meet with self-represented bankruptcy litigants and assist them with their bankruptcy related issues. Randall Sutter helps manage the Bankruptcy Clinic by coordinating the volunteer attorneys and by searching for grants to help provide funding to the clinic.
Randall began his career with the United States Department of Defense and then became an entrepreneur in the trucking industry, where his company conducted cargo claim investigations on damaged or lost freight for the trucking, ocean, and airline industries. He had always considered going to law school, and eventually decided to take advantage of the evening classes offered by the Ventura and Santa Barbara Colleges of Law. Randall started practicing law part-time in 2006, focusing on small business and transportation legal issues, and by 2009 decided to expand his practice to full-time. It was then that he was introduced to bankruptcy law. “Initially, I did not think this area of the law would interest me as I was focused more on building businesses than bankrupting them. But, once I began learning bankruptcy in-depth, I found that bankruptcy law is really about allowing businesses and individuals to reorganize or liquidate their debt so that they can rebuild their business or life.” Bankruptcy is now a major part of Randall’s practice at his firm, Rounds & Sutter LLP in Ventura, which also handles consumer debt issues, real estate, and business law.
Two years ago, while waiting to make an appearance at the Bankruptcy Court in Santa Barbara, Randall ran into a Legal Aid employee who informed him of the Bankruptcy Self-Help Clinic and said they were looking for volunteer attorneys. Randall, who already had a history of volunteering with the Ventura Teen Legal Clinic, agreed to become a volunteer.
“By volunteering, I thought it would be an ideal way to help others, give back to the community, and further my knowledge of bankruptcy.” During the two years that he has been working at the Clinic, Randall has been able to help many different individuals. “In a particular way, each client makes an impact on me with their unique circumstances. My primary goal is to give each client a sense of relief and eliminate the stress they may be experiencing.” Many of the people Randall has helped have expressed their thanks to him in the form of phone calls and notes informing him of how they were able to turn their lives around, professionally and personally, after getting assistance at the Clinic.
Volunteering at the Clinic has also helped Randall. He states that “it has reinforced my belief that what is important is not the challenges and struggles we face in our lives, but how we respond to these adversities.” Along with that, it has also validated his decision to practice bankruptcy law and afforded him the chance to meet, work with, and learn from a variety of exceptional people in the bankruptcy community.
Volunteering at the Clinic has been “very rewarding and very humbling” for Randall, and the work he and the other volunteers have done has made a big impact on our community.
At the time Randall started volunteering at the Clinic, it consisted of only two volunteer attorneys and only operated twice a month. Since that time, the Clinic has expanded to every Friday morning and has a rotation of seven attorney volunteers, one non-attorney volunteer, and five court staff who assist self-represented litigants. On April 19th, the Clinic opened a new office space in the lobby of the court. Seeing the good work that was being done by the Clinic, the Bankruptcy Court provided the funds to build the new Clinic space and also created a dedicated clerk window for Clinic clients. This summer, the Clinic hopes to expand its services to have two attorney volunteers assisting self-represented litigants each Friday morning.
Legal Aid would like to extend its thanks to Randall Sutter for his hard work at the Bankruptcy Self-Help Clinic. Legal Aid would also like to thank the United States Bankruptcy Court, Central District of California, Northern Division for the construction of the new Clinic space.
Additionally, we would like to thank all of the Clinic volunteers and supporters – Attorney Volunteers: Carrissa Horowitz, Reed Olmstead, Monica Robles, Luis Esparza, Natalie Spilborghs, Anne Rycroft; Clinic Staff Volunteer: Jean Linn; US Bankruptcy Court Staff: Judge Riblet, Meredith Klassen, Cheri Davis, Jim McNabb, and Casey Nelson. Please stop by the Clinic this summer to see the new space and see how you can make a difference in our community.